Tag Archives: Chris Bernotas

Why Reading Music Is as Important as Reading Literature

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By Chris Bernotas

Don’t you love all of the parallels that are drawn between music and other subject areas? You know what I mean, right? Music and math can easily connect through the basic idea of subdivision or how many beats there are in a measure. Music and team sports draw comparison through the concept and practice of working together for a common goal with people of all different skills and backgrounds. Well, how about reading and literature? You already know the importance of sight-reading and focusing on concepts that involve reading notes and reading rhythms. Both are incredibly important and necessary concepts, but really think about music and reading.

When you read a good book, you get absorbed in the characters, follow the storyline, and comprehend the words as they transform into images in your brain. Your emotions can go on a rollercoaster ride as you read the words describing an exciting chase or the evil villain or the feeling as the characters fall in love. Reading music is about comprehension in very much the same way. Learning the note names are the basic words. Learning the scales are putting those words in order and understanding some sentence structure. Performing a piece of music is the same as reading all of the words as they weave into a completed sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, a series of chapters and so on. You’re piecing together musical words and phrases to tell a story, complete with good guys, bad guys, thrilling storylines, romance, and sometimes pure fun. You can tell serious stories, happy stories, sad stories, and sometimes historical stories. There really is no limit.

Just as it is important for students to recognize why they read literature, to experience and connect with themselves and each other (sound familiar?), they should recognize how the musical language and literature can fulfill the very same human needs. In honor of National Reading Month and Read Across America Day, make sure to read with your students today and share in the story together!

bernotasChris Bernotas is co-author of the revolutionary Sound Innovations series. An active composer and arranger of concert band music, his music has been performed at the Midwest Clinic and has appeared on J.W. Pepper’s Editor’s Choice list and numerous state lists. Chris has been an instrumental music teacher in the Mountain Lakes School District in New Jersey for more than 20 years.

 


 

Listening vs. Hearing: Developing Your Students’ Ensemble Skills

Listening vs. Hearing: Developing Your Students' Ensemble Skills

By Chris Bernotas

Listen up! Listen down, listen in front of you, listen behind you, and listen all around. Critical listening is one of the most important aspects of learning to play as an ensemble member. Do we really teach our students how to listen? It is one thing to hear and another to listen, evaluate, and adjust. Learning to listen and react is as important a skill as learning the fingering for a concert Bb! Listening, as a member of an ensemble, is a new and challenging skill that students need to practice, like a scale. It might even be odd for students to realize they often need to focus their attention around the room instead of on themselves. I have found that by merely bringing a student’s attention to the fact that they need to listen to those around them often yields great results in improving the sound of my band. But what are they listening for? And what should they do about what they hear? This is where the teacher we are imperative and irreplaceable. We need to tell them. I always like to encourage teachers to share our secrets!

I want to share a quick lesson plan with you. Let’s focus this sample lesson on developing characteristic tone. Using “Passing the Tonic” as an example (excerpt below), you can help students develop a number of listening skills, but for this we will focus on characteristic tone. This exercise type uses the tonic note of a key and hands it off to different sections of the band. Direct your students to focus their listening on other instruments and to also be prepared to describe what they hear as it relates to the quality of the tone students are producing. Applying this simple lesson will encourage your students to hear other instruments in the band other than their own as well as practice using words to describe sound (it actually addresses listening, analytical and verbal skills.) Ask them to go beyond basic descriptions like, “the trumpets sound bad” or “the bassoons are ridiculously loud. Gross.” Share a few examples of how words can describe characteristic sound. Tell students to explore the ‘why’ part of their answer and provide that along with their analysis. For example, “The trumpets have a nice sound, they aren’t playing too loudly or too softly.” This is a first step in teaching students to listen critically around the room. This same exercise could be used for developing pitch matching as well. The overarching skill involved is critical listening and that skill can be applied to any number of ensemble concepts we teach in band. It all starts with learning to listen with purpose.

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There are many skills needed when students transition from learning to play their instrument in individual or small group lessons and playing as part of a band. Tone, Tuning, Technique, Balance, Rhythm, Dynamics, Articulation and Expression are a few of those skills. Many times we try to develop ensemble skills on the fly, with their concert music in hand. By identifying each specific ensemble skill, teaching them to students and reinforcing them, students will more effectively connect to and perform their music. They will have a deeper understanding of what it means to be a musician in an ensemble and to experience the expressive elements that sometimes elude them.  Focusing on one or two ensemble concepts at the beginning of each rehearsal and applying them to a beautiful chorale, your students will more quickly advance in not only their musical ability, but in their ability to think, evaluate and make decisions.

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Being part of a musical ensemble teaches students true-life skills that extend far beyond their school years.  Just as students are taught about posture as an individual, they need to learn what it means to be part of the team. These skills can begin to develop in their first year.  Sound Innovations Ensemble Development for Young Concert Band may very well be the resource you have been looking for.

 

 

chris bernotas

Chris Bernotas is co-author of the revolutionary Sound Innovations series. An active composer and arranger of concert band music, his music has been performed at the Midwest Clinic and has appeared on J.W. Pepper’s Editor’s Choice list and numerous state lists. He was recognized as “Educator of the Year” in 2005 and has been listed several times in Who’s Who Among American Teachers.


 

Teacher New Year’s Resolution

Chris M. Bernotas

Happy New Year! What an exciting day of the year January 1st is! Everything is new again. We have a new outlook on life and we set new personal goals in an effort to better ourselves. We look at the prior year, consider the highs and lows and try to address anything we would like to improve upon. So why am I talking about New Year’s now? As a teacher we celebrate New Year’s twice a year. The start of school (August or September) is our New Year! At home, we have our resolutions—you know, I am going to lose weight, go to the gym, eat healthier! Sadly, those usually last about a month—okay, a week—then it is back to buffalo wings and professional couch sitting. As teachers in school we have an opportunity to look at our previous school year and wipe the slate clean with a fresh start. Each new school year we have the opportunity to hit the “reset” button. How exciting is that? It is a part of the profession that I just love, and by approaching each year as a new opportunity for personal and professional growth—and sticking to your resolutions—you can avoid the dreaded burnout.

That doesn’t mean that your prior year has to have been a disaster to take the New Year’s Resolution approach. By reflecting on even the most successful year you will find that there are areas that could have been better in some way. Maybe the collection of uniforms could have been more streamlined or maybe your attendance taking skills could use a little brush up. Or maybe there are specific concepts that you would like to focus on with your students. The exciting aspect I find is that there is never a lack of ideas on how we can improve the classroom experience for both our students and ourselves. I would like to share three of my own personal improvement goals, or School Year’s Resolutions with you. Perhaps you will be inspired to think of your own. I am excited for this school year, my 25th as a teacher, and I wish you all the best in your year!

  1. Play more, talk less. This simple phrase is so important. Everything I have to say is so incredibly important! I am sure this is true for you as well. We have all the answers and want to share those answers with our students. Many times the best education happens when you say nothing at all. Students discover the answers as we guide them. The play more, talk less approach keeps that concept in mind. It is also a wonderful tool to help with classroom management. When students are actively engaged (or have an instrument on their face) they will be less likely to talk to their neighbor!
  2. Don’t Say It. Do you ever yell over the ensemble? “BASSOONS! YOU ARE TOO LOUD!” Ok, you’ve never said that one. How about this, “TRUMPETS TOO LOUD, TROMBONES ARTICULATE, PERCUSSION WATCH ME!!!” Me too. It is so easy to just tell them with our voice, and it works in the short term. However when we do this, we are taking away from our ultimate goal of communication from the podium. We want our students to watch us to understand our interpretation, but if we yell instruction at them, why would they watch? So, my goal here is to not talk (or sing) over the ensemble as they are rehearsing.
  3. K.I.S.S. We love analogies. I know I do. They are so effective when trying to get kids to understand concepts. When a student gets a concept through an analogy it is like a beautiful ray of sunshine beaming through the darkest of clouds. (See what I did there?) I would never say to not use a wonderful analogy or share a great pun—just be sure to not overuse them. Many times we just need to keep it simple. Give a short direction with simple and direct instruction. How about saying, “Alto saxes, there is a wrong note on beat 2 of measure 5,” instead of, “Alto saxes, there is a criminal lurking in the shadows of measure 5. You need to swoop upon it to eradicate the musical world of this eternal evil.” Use your analogies, I used one this morning and it really connected with my students, but also keep it simple.

I wish you all a Happy New School Year and hope it is your best yet! If you have a resolution to share, please send me a note (cbernotas@gmail.com) and perhaps I will compile them and share them in the future. Until then—be active, maintain a healthy weight and eat a balanced diet!

By Chris M. Bernotas
Alfred Music Composer & Sound Innovations Author